Carrying Canada on their shoulders
Hawks Keith, Seabrook and Toews dealing with high expectations
CHICAGO -- No matter how many goals he scores, how many points he racks up, Patrick Kane is still the yappy little brother of the Blackhawks' locker room.
With the Winter Olympics approaching, Kane, the youngest member of Team USA by eight months, hasn't been afraid to needle his three teammates who will play for the Team Canada juggernaut.
"Kaner," Team Canada defenseman Brent Seabrook said, "has been running his mouth. It'll be interesting to see what happens when we play them."
Canada and the United States face off Feb. 21, for those circling their calendars.
Kane, who is undeniably excited to play for his country, knows that nothing he can say will be able to affect his Canadian teammates, who will have an incredible amount of expectations on them to win the gold. Think Michael Phelps and the Dream Team, with a dash of Soviet Union hockey, though without the specter of Siberian work camps.
"In Canada, there's a lot of pressure on them," Kane said. "I think they can feed off that."
Mischievously, he added: "I know we play them the third game of the tournament. Hopefully we can get out to an early lead and get the crowd to work against them."
Chicago has fallen in love with these Blackhawks since last season. The true hockey fans have nothing but a budding goalie battle and some power-play impotency to banter about, as the Hawks look strong enough to end their epic Stanley Cup drought. If they don't win, or at least make the Finals, this season will be billed a failure. But for all the pressure they have in Chicago, for Team Canada's Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews, it pales in comparison to what's waiting for them in Vancouver.
It's gold medal or get out for the members of Canada's high-powered, high-priced team, which boasts a devastating lineup, with Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash among the big names on the roster trying to wipe away the stain of Turin in 2006, when Canada finished seventh after winning the gold in 2002 in Salt Lake City. It's going to be fun to watch this team deal with the pressure of playing for more than a medal and five-figure bonuses. This is a team playing for the collective pride of a country, a scenario that keeps the Olympics relevant. Team Canada playing in Canada, likely in the gold-medal finals, will be a can't-miss event for sports fans.
"It's going to be a lot of pressure," said Seabrook, who has mostly brushed away talking about the Olympics before Friday. "I've heard the media up there say if Canada wins gold, they've just started to reach their potential. There's not going to be any shortage of pressure. We're just looking to get out there and get these Games started."
There's a good chance this could be the last Olympics with NHL players, which raises the stakes for Canadian pride.
Team Canada only gets one full day of practice as it begins play on Tuesday against Norway. That's a hurdle that all of the top teams will face with the NHL playing through Sunday. The Hawks are at Columbus on Sunday before breaking for a fortnight.
Seabrook, a British Columbia native, said he hopes to be paired with current partner Keith, a prospect that will help him adjust to a new system and unfamiliar teammates. He's also thinking of this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"It's not something that's going to come up ever again for me," he said. "To have an opportunity to play in that tournament, and play for Canada, it's a great honor, and I'm really looking forward to getting out there."
Other reporters told me that Seabrook had been in shutdown mode about discussing the Olympics, while Keith would be avuncular, but I found it completely the opposite. Then again, maybe I shouldn't have used my first question to Keith to remind him of the silver medal he won with Team Canada in the 2008 World Championships.
"How was the silver received in Canada?" I asked facetiously.
"Obviously we weren't too happy about it," he said. "With it being our home soil, it was tough. We lost to the Russians there. I think it serves more incentive and you know, you learn your lessons and make it better this time around."
Keith also doesn't bite on questions about the pressure, undue or not, of playing hockey for Canada. His candor is refreshing, even if it's a tad unrealistic.
"I think every team has pressure on them," he said. "Everyone wants to put the pressure on us. It's funny that way, because Sweden is the defending champs. Do they have pressure to defend their gold? If Russia doesn't win, are they going to be disappointed with how much offensive skill they have? If they lose, what do they think?"
It's not as if Keith is crying "Woe Canada." In fact, he welcomes the expectations, which is a good sign, because with his goal-scoring ability, he could emerge as a star in the tournament.
"It's fine people want to put so much pressure on Canada," he said. "But to me, it's a good thing we're back in Canada playing. Other teams have just as much pressure as we do."
It's going to be hard for Team Canada to elicit much sympathy if they don't win. The roster makes more than $120 million in salary. Only three players earn less than $3.5 million a year, and Keith and Toews just signed lucrative new contracts. But money and talent can be trumped by cohesiveness. The 2006 team earned a lot, too.
The Canadian hockey establishment has put together a well-rounded roster, mixing youth and experience, size with speed. Bringing aboard Keith and Seabrook, one of the top defensive tandems in the NHL, was a good choice. Toews is expected to contribute as well.
"Obviously [the roster] looks good," Keith said. "But it's important we develop chemistry. It's important we play for one another and play as a team. I think the best team wins the tournament."
Aside from jingoism, the Olympics can help the Blackhawks who are participating. While it's not unfair to wonder whether the event hurts a streaking team, playoff intensity in February could help the participants in the spring.
"All the guys over there will be exposed to a lot of pressure, scrutiny and a lot of impact games," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think by working your way through that, there are lessons you can learn. Hopefully they can apply them down the stretch with us."
"Absolutely," Seabrook said. "I think it will get us ready for the playoffs in the middle of the season. But at the same time, there's still 25 games left after the Olympics. We've got to take care of that first."
While I'm rooting for Team USA to pull an upset, there will be a part of me rooting for Canada, too. And in Chicago, I don't think I'm alone.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
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